Thursday, May 16, 2013
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Look, I’m a Trekkie, I have been and ever shall be a Trekkie (Trekkies will see what I did there). I’m not a Trekker. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, there are a lot of definitions, but mine is this: a Trekkie is a light hearted diehard fan who enjoys the ‘Star Trek’ franchise for what it is; good solid entertainment. A Trekker is the kind of fan who questions everything about the franchise, such as going to conventions and instead of thanking the actors who have appeared in the shows over the years, they question why in certain episodes the said actor pressed a certain button on a certain computer panel. You see the difference? Good! Where am I going with this you ask? Well, bear with me for a little while longer …
These days it’s Chic to be Geek, and I’m a Geek. Although I have never had sand kicked in my face (I’d like to see someone try), I have had to put up with the usual crap that comes with being a Geek. Until now; the current upturn for sci-fi demands that Hollywood make things cooler. And they don’t get cooler than J J Abrams’s ‘Star Trek’ films. The first one not only established new actors in old familiar roles, but also showed us how these characters came to be. We had Kirk, Spock and McCoy all enrol in to Starfleet Academy. We see how they became the great heroes we admire and love. We see the U.S.S. Enterprise on her maiden voyage, already knowing that this ship and crew will be best and brightest of the United Federation of Planets.
So now we’ve got the first film out of the way, it’s time for the sequel! And this film is so much bigger than the first! IT IS HUGE! But does it make it better? Short answer: Yes… Long answer: No… Confused?... Yes?... So was I, until I sat down to write this review. You see, there are certain events that I can’t discuss without revealing spoilers. So it’s really hard to say where the problems lie. So to explain how, let me take you back to 1982; the film is ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’. This film is arguably the best of the original Trek films. The crew of the Enterprise is pitted against the villainous Khan played deliciously by Ricardo Montalbán. In the penultimate scene, Spock sacrifices his life to save the Enterprise from certain doom (anyone who says spoilers about a 1982 film, I have my phaser set to stun). While Spock lies dying Kirk is told to hurry down to engineering to see his fallen comrade. The emotion of this scene is raw and beautiful; it’s hard not to shed a tear, Kirk and Spock brothers in arms unable to touch through a glass wall, Kirk unable to save his best friend from the radiation that runs through Spock’s body. I defy anyone to say that this scene was not a fantastic moment in Trek history!
Fast forward to 2013 and ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’. This film, as great as it is with its fantastic special effects and gripping story line, lacks the emotional depth, or soul as my better half put it. So whose fault is it? Well … it’s certainly not J J Abrams’ and it’s undoubtedly not the actors - Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto excel as Kirk and Spock, as do the rest of the cast. Having said that, the rest of the cast are used sparingly and most of the time it’s just for comic relief, especially McCoy who in the original Trek films was the emotional counterpart to Spock’s logic. I can’t help thinking that downplaying McCoy as they did was a very bad decision, seeing as Karl Urban’s McCoy was by far my favourite character in the previous film. The antagonist of the piece is played by Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame, who in my eyes is a fantastic actor but seems to be very two dimensional in a three dimensional movie.
But I think the fault lies with the writers, it seems they started well but couldn’t be bothered to finish the story properly! It lacks originality, which is truly a shame. If they had taken the time to be more unique, this film would have seriously been off the chart! This brings me back to Trekkies vs Trekkers, if you are truly a Trekkie or have no Trek knowledge whatsoever you will love this movie. But if you are a Trekker, well ... don’t say I didn’t tell you so!
So what’s next for the crew of the Enterprise? Abrams is off to do another ‘Star’ movie, but it’s of the ‘Wars’ and not the ‘Trek’. Will he return to the franchise? Who knows? But if he does I will be there to welcome him with open arms.
Friday, May 10, 2013
There’s a scene in ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ where the screen is filled with a computer-mapped image of the interior of Chauvet Cave in southern France – home to a veritable art gallery’s worth of pre-historic cave paintings – while Herzog delivers an unusually ordinary bit of expository voiceover. Cut to one of the technicians responsible for the mapping, sitting at a desk, computer in front of him, discussing the mapping work. Again, it’s all very typical of a documentary opening with the History Channel’s logo. Then the technician happens to mention that he comes from a non-scientific background; Herzog interrupts him and asks what he did before; the man gives a self-conscious grin and answers that he was in the circus. And – bingo! – we’re in Herzog territory good and proper.
While ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ – haunting music and dream-like meditations on the unknowable past notwithstanding – is one of the more orthodox entries on Herzog’s CV, it’s still the kind of film that only Herzog could have made. The chance to film, in strictly regimented conditions and with an almost draconian time limit, an area that will never been seen except by a handful of scientific experts must have been irresistible to modern cinema’s most passionate explorer. The historic importance of the paintings was established very shortly after their discovery in 1994 and the cave was immediately sealed off. Restrictions around access were imposed to preserve the cave’s climate and conditions. Herzog and a crew of just three had to use battery powered equipment and use lighting which gave off no heat.
Sure, it’s not as crazy as the “hey, there’s a small island that might just get blown to shit by an active volcano, why not let’s fly in?” aesthetic of ‘La Soufriere’, but there’s that same sense of race-against-time filmmaking at work. Oh yeah, and he shot it in 3-D as well. (Full disclosure/bone of contention: ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ came and went in Nottingham cinemas in something slightly faster than the blink of an eye. I’ve only seen it on DVD in bog standard 2D. It still rankles that I didn’t get to see it on the big screen and in the original format. I think it would have proved cinema’s only genuinely tactile use of the form.)
‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is several things – the least of which is a documentary about cave paintings. It’s about memory, perception, dreams, and the passing of time. And it’s an act of liberation. It takes the sealed Chauvet cave, wrests it from the hands of researchers and academics, and makes a beautiful and richly textured gift of it to the world.
Sunday, May 05, 2013
There were two criticisms of ‘The Look of Love’ that followed me into the cinema like a couple of Chihuahuas snapping at my ankles. The first was that Steve Coogan’s central performance was little more than Steve Coogan plays Alan Partridge playing Paul Raymond; the second was that the film lacks a moral centre.
Both are accurate. Both are kind of the point.
‘The Look of Love’ – an examination of the life of British porn baron Paul Raymond, from his money-spinning property deals to his notoriety as owner of “revue bars” (i.e. strip clubs) and publisher of top-shelf magazine ‘Men Only’ – is so effective in its evocative of the grim seediness of Soho in the 1970s and 1980s (the principle decades in which the film is set) that the comic baggage Coogan will always be fated to bring to any role is a positive relief. His arch delivery of much of his dialogue sees him firmly in on the act. Having said that, a knowing directorial decision to play on his established persona should not detract from the due acknowledgement: this is Coogan’s best outing as an actor thus far.
The facts of Raymond’s life (as espoused by the film) boil down to a simple series of events: Raymond makes some serious money as a property baron, fancies himself as an impresario, opens a member’s only nightclub featuring exotic dancers, makes a shitload more money, drives his choreographer wife Jean (Anna Friel) away with all his philandering, takes up with soft porn starlet Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton), and invests financially and emotionally in his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) as his corporate successor, only for her to go off the rails in spectacularly self-destructive style.
It’s referenced on at least four occasions in Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay that Paul Raymond was born Jeffrey Quinn. That he reinvented himself on arrival in London as a young man, shedding his Liverpudlian background, is a snippet of backstory that Raymond delivers as well-rehearsed press-conference banter in two scenes set years apart. The inference is that ‘Paul Raymond’ was an elaborate façade that Jeffrey Quinn disappeared into. It’s a reading born out by a despairingly revealing sequence where his son from an early, previously unmentioned marriage, turns up at Raymond’s vulgarly over-designed penthouse and tries to learn something about the father he’s never known. Raymond gives him a slap up meal, breaks open some good champagne, and can’t wait to show him the door.
Coogan’s performance gives us Paul Raymond as, variously, a little-boy-lost charmer who (it would seem) invested his property millions in shows and wank mags purely to meet girls; a raconteur who throws out erudite conversational snippets and self-deprecating one-liners and effortlessly manipulates his associates into doing his bidding; and a man who, for all that he indulges his daughter to the max and dotes on his grandchildren, has a complete moral disconnect even when his lifestyle coils its licentious tentacles around those dearest to him. The two most shocking scenes portray Debbie’s cocaine use. In the first, Raymond catches her using for the first time, and his only admonition is that cheap shit bought on the street is cut and could contain anything – “if you’re going to do this, buy the good stuff”. In the second, Debbie announces, distraught, that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. Dad and daughter do a big fat line of commiseratory coke together.
Poots knocks it out of the stadium as Debbie Raymond. Her winningly gauche performance of the eponymous ballad over the end credits gives the film what small claim it has to a human element. She nails the character’s fluctuation between intense vulnerability and fierce competitiveness. In her scenes with Coogan, ‘The Look of Love’ has the focus of a Jacobean tragedy: the misguided patriarch, his personal relationships self-sabotaged, tries to justify his wanton excesses by living vicariously through his daughter, only to broker her destruction because she is unable to survive the very lifestyle that sustains him.
All told, ‘The Look of Love’ is downbeat and then some. Director Michael Winterbottom makes no bones that, for all Raymond’s protestations that he wasn’t a pornographer, ‘Men Only’ was a grubby and unaesthetic delivery system for gynaecologically blunt images of women. Two ‘Men Only’ photoshoots are depicted and, for all the T&A on display, they’re utterly unerotic. Same goes for the handful of sex scenes, bodies stacked up against each other like marble slabs.
In scene after scene, Raymond tries to convince people he’s living the dream. He name-drops; he parades his nubile girlfriends and the gadgets that litter his apartment; he laps it up when someone likens his penthouse to a set from a Bond film. He goes everywhere by Rolls Royce. He employs a chauffeur. And in scene after scene, Winterbottom takes a scalpel to his lifestyle: cuts through the pretence and the egomania and the self-delusion; hacks away at the absurdities – some of them pathetically funny, others just plain sad – of what a man becomes when he lets money define him.
Hence the necessity of Steve Coogan and the Alan Partridge persona. It takes a comedian to make all of this palatable. And it takes a comedian to give us, with just the right degree of pathos, the tears of a clown as the curtain falls.
Saturday, May 04, 2013
Thursday, May 02, 2013
In scene after scene – dockyard shoot-out; protagonist chained up in basement; heroine chained up in villain’s lair; arbitrary shots of hookers and beauty pageant contestants – its clear that ‘Iron Man 3’ is un film de Shane Black. This works to its benefit and detriment in roughly equal measures. To its benefit in that Black’s script is a godsend after to Justin Theroux’s rambling, unfocused ‘Iron Man 2’ screenplay. To its detriment in that you can never quite shake the feeling that Black would have been happier if Tony Stark were a burnt-out alcoholic cop with a shady past and didn’t go around wearing a flying metal suit.
Which isn’t to say that Black doesn’t deliver two big-ass set-pieces involving the suit: one involving some sky-diving, the other at the aforementioned dockyard (involving, to be honest, a fuckload of flying metal suits). It’s just that the rest of the movie doesn’t seem to be in the same key.
Herein the problem: the bits of the film that work do so because they’re demonstrably Shane Black moments; but these moments are not in the key of Tony Stark. And what made the first ‘Iron Man’ such an unexpected delight – and such a smash success; it was ‘Iron Man’, after all, that kickstarted Marvel’s five-year box office supremacy – was Robert Downey Jnr’s unapologetically showboating performance as Stark. Billionaire, genius and philanthropist wrapped up in the same flamboyant package as playboy, smartarse and arrogant twat – every facet of his character held in such perfect equilibrium as to make him irresistibly entertaining.
And yet ‘Iron Man 2’ had him depleted and riddled with self-doubt, while this new instalment sees him traumatised by the events of ‘Avengers Assemble’. Hence, a Tony Stark who suffers panic attacks, a Tony Stark who burrows into a cocoon of introversion, a Tony Stark whose latest refinements on the suit are riddled with tech issues that leave him vulnerable. Hey, folks, remember the Tony Stark who partied with hot chicks, dealt one-liners like a card-sharp cutting a deck, and drove the most expensive model Audi have ever built like the freeway was his own personal race track? Yeah, I remember him too, and I miss the dude. Can we have him back next time, please?
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
‘Oblivion’ is a masterpiece of production design that desperately wants to be a cerebral Tarkovskian study of ravaged landscapes, existential turmoil and questions of identity … but has to, y’know, throw in some hamfisted mainstream narrative tropes in order to justify its budget.
Opening with a slab of voiceover exposition, we learn that an alien antagonist destroyed the moon (causing all manner of natural catastrophe) prior to invading Earth. Someone on Earth authorised the use of something called “the nimbus” (I’m guessing the President of the United States in the first instance and a heavy duty piece of thermo-nuclear kit in the second), effectively “winning the war but losing the planet”. Now there’s a radiation zone, a number of power plants that process Earth’s remaining air and water power to provide energy for off-world space station The Tet, and an atmosphere-straddling platform occupied by Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), technicians who maintain the power plants and the drones that safeguard them. Oh, we also learn that Jack and Victoria had “memory wipes” in order to protect “the security of their mission” prior to taking the job. I assume this was done before their induction course. As the film begins, Jack is experiencing pre-destruction-of-Earth hallucinations which he assumes are memories, while by-the-book Victoria just wants to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and jet off to Titan (Jupiter’s moon, where the last enclave of humanity are holed up) when their detail ends in a fortnight.
Anyone who hasn’t even hazarded a guess about where this is going by now will probably view ‘Oblivion’ as an entirely original and genre-defining work. The rest of us will happily tick off its many and unsubtly referenced influences while we sit back and bathe in the visuals.
Because that’s the thing. For all that ‘Oblivion’ is a derivate piece of work (particularly in the increasingly hackneyed second half where it becomes a patchwork quilt of ‘Independence Day’, ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Moon’), it’s the most genuinely gorgeous thing I’ve seen on the big screen this year. Jack and Victoria’s cloud-based operations centre is kind of like a two-up-to-down designed by Frank Lloyd Wright complete with helipad and swimming pool. A scene in said swimming pool comes close to a sort of visual poetry. Director Joseph Kosinski and DoP Claudio Miranda conjure eerily effective visions of a dune-covered New York which are a million miles away from the usual post-apocalypse imaginings. The technology is memorably rendered, too: Jack’s scout craft and the drones themselves have a propulsive sense of movement and engineering, while also looking careworn and, despite their sleek profiles, realistically utilitarian in their design. Only the late-in-the-day visualisation of a maleficent supercomputer as a slightly misshapen amplifier covered in sentient mould lets the side down.
Performances vary: Cruise delivers with a likeable everyman persona; Riseborough finds nuances in a character who could have been decidedly one-note; Olga Kurylenko is saddled with a nothing role and does even less with it; Morgan Freeman continues to be one of the coolest blokes on the planet, claiming entire scenes for himself by doing little more than lighting a cigar or wearing a knee-length leather jacket.
The script is anodyne at best, edging into total mess on more than one occasion. Example: Jack gets shot in the shoulder at one point and the wound is never reference, depicted or treated for the rest of the movie. He’s shot and then, oh fuck it, he needs to do some heroic running, jumping and falling down stuff, so let’s all pretend he never took that bullet in the first place, ’kay?
Ordinarily, I’d have marked ‘Oblivion’ down for its failings, consigned it to the file marked “ho hum” and probably not ever bothered writing about it for Agitation. But I keep coming back to how damned good it looks, and to the world-building and attention to detail of its first half as Jack goes through the motions of a routine job in an extraordinary situation; a guy who punches the clock, patches up the drones, patrols the wastelands and somehow isn’t satisfied with the way things are; a guy who’s just starting to think beyond the accepted parameters.